Retired U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Rick Disney had served in the military about a year when he fell from a repel tower and broke his heel in Norfolk, Va., during a 1999 training exercise.
In the years that followed, Disney was deployed overseas to carryout anti-terrorism operations, where he endured the wear-and-tear of an active duty service member, suffering neck, back, and leg pain that has persisted for more than a decade after he transitioned to the inactive reserves in 2002.
He first visited the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa, Fla., to receive care in 2013. He recalls a chaotic process, running around the facility's campus for six hours in an attempt to file a claim for treatment.
Disney then waited nine months to receive his first appointment. He spent another six months undergoing medical tests, but never received treatment. A year later, Disney received a letter rejecting his claim for benefits, asserting his injuries weren't sustained on active duty.
"When I got the denial claim in the mail I was disappointed, but I didn't expect much," Disney told the Washington Free Beacon. "The staff's treatment throughout the whole ordeal set it up where I wasn't surprised when I was turned away. It was just a long, drawn-out process, and for the veterans who are in immediate need for care, that's a life or death issue."
Lawmakers over the past year have floated several bills to give veterans the option to seek private-sector medical care if the VA is unable to provide a patient with an adequate healthcare team in a timely manner.
Though varying in detail, all three pieces of legislation would overhaul the private-sector Veterans Choice Program created by Congress in response to a 2014 scandal regarding over manipulated wait times at federal facilities that led to the deaths of dozens of veterans. The program was intended to temporarily provide veterans with greater flexibility to visit care providers outside of the VA's network of healthcare facilities.
With government funding set to run out Friday and a lack of consensus on those bills, VA secretary David Shulkin has urged lawmakers to pass a temporary stopgap measure "to ensure our veterans receive uninterrupted care."
Disney, who now works as a senior field director at the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, has advocated for a Senate measure that would increase access to private care "rather than relying on the VA bureaucracy to determine eligibility criteria." CVA has endorsed the bill, cosponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and John Moran (Kans.).
"I know veterans who are no longer here who needed immediate action, they needed immediate response, they needed help sooner, and then they self medicated and now they're dead," he said. "If they had the opportunity to go to any doctor and use their VA benefits elsewhere, there's a possibility that something different would have happened if they didn't have to wait for care."